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Local minister also was Confederate spy
Historian Tom Perry speaks Wednesday at the Christ Episcopal Church Parish House. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)
Thursday, May 6, 2010
By ELIZA WINSTON - Bulletin Staff Writer
Local historian Tom Perry was familiar with the stories of Confederate Army spy Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, such as how he disguised himself to avoid capture and the $10,000 reward offered for his arrest.
So Perry was surprised when he spotted Stringfellow's portrait in the basement of Christ Episcopal Church in Martinsville along with other former pastors of the church.
"Knowing what I know about Frank Stringfellow, the last place I expected to find him was on the basement wall of an Episcopal church," said Perry, who spoke about Stringfellow on Wednesday at the church's Parish House.
Perry, who has written several books about the area, knew a different side of Stringfellow's career. By the end of the Civil War, Stringfellow's work as a Confederate spy made him the "most dangerous man in the Confederacy," and there was a $10,000 reward for his capture, Perry said.
However, Perry learned that after the war, Stringfellow traveled to Canada, where he became increasingly spiritual. Stringfellow, who originally was from Culpeper County, moved back to Virginia and became an Episcopal minister. He gave sermons throughout Franklin, Patrick and Henry counties, said Perry.
Stringfellow was the minister of Christ Episcopal Church and helped build the church's current building in the 1890s. Perry said Stringfellow left soon after the construction was completed because he never liked to stay at one church too long. Stringfellow thought "people would get used to him and stop listening," Perry explained.
While he was a minister, Stringfellow also traveled around the country and discussed his experiences as a Confederate spy. He never took payment for the talks, instead giving the money to churches or to Confederate veterans and their families, Perry said.
Stringfellow's passion for helping Confederate soldiers began during the war. He didn't have an easy time getting into the army in the first place, said Perry. In fact, he was rejected four times before he was able to join the Confederate Army in 1861.
He was clean shaven with blond hair and blue eyes, but he weighed only 94 pounds, said Perry. The Confederate Army originally didn't think Stringfellow was strong enough to fight, but that all changed when he met J.E.B. Stuart.
Perry said Stringfellow met Stuart while he was serving as messenger for the Confederates, but Stuart quickly realized Stringfellow was destined for other things. Soon enough Stringfellow found himself working as a spy for Stuart's calvary in Alexandria, Perry said.
"Stuart was good at finding young men who were good at getting information," said Perry.
But one day Stringfellow came across a federal officer who recognized him as a Confederate soldier. Stringfellow took off running, but soon many soldiers were chasing him through Alexandria, said Perry.
"Stringfellow saw an open door nearby and ran in, but he had no choice but to dash upstairs where an old lady with a hoop skirt was sitting and darning a table cloth," he said. "She recognized him and said "˜Hi, Frank' before lifting up her skirt to show him where he could hide."�
Without hesitation, Stringfellow hid underneath the wide skirt and the woman went back to her sewing, said Perry. When the officers came into the home she convinced them that whoever entered the house went in the back door and left out the front, he said.
Perry added that although Stringfellow was captured several times during the war, he always managed to escape. He also often got into dangerous situations, such as when he decided to care for his mother in disguise.
Stringfellow's mother lived in a house in Culpeper County that had been taken over by Union soldiers. During a nearby skirmish, his mother was shot in the foot, said Perry.
"Stringfellow snuck into the home wearing a bonnet and women's clothing to care for his mother as Union soldiers went up and down the stairs," Perry said.
Perry said Stringfellow died on June 8, 1913, from a heart attack. He is buried beside his wife, Emma, in Ivy Hill Cemetery in Alexandria.